Saturday, January 30, 2016

Guest Op Ed Post: "MRRJ Woes Need Fixing"

Middle River Regional Jail
The following piece appeared in today's DNR, written by Laura Crites and posted with her permission:

Channel 29 has done us all a service with its recent investigative report on the Middle River Regional Jail. Investigative reporter Tara Todd revealed that neglect, indifference to inmate medical needs, ignoring suffering and withholding critical medications by jail staff has resulted in the recent deaths of two inmates and untreated terminal cancer in a third.

This type of reporting is one of the two major forces that check the abuse of power in a democratic society.

Prisons and jails are ripe arenas for abuse of power by authorities, including prison staff. In 1971, Stanford professor Philip Zimbardo conducted the famous “prison experiment.” He randomly assigned students to the role of prisoner or guard. A pattern of abuse of authority by the “guards” occurred so quickly that he stopped the study abruptly. This study has been broadly replicated with the same results.

The abuse of power in prisons and jails affects most of us. As the drug epidemic continues to spread, people increasingly find friends, colleagues and family members incarcerated. Those with more resources, status and influence cannot isolate themselves from the experience of arrest, incarceration, the lifelong discrimination that results from a criminal record. The tragedy and challenge of a criminal record, prison time and drug addiction that has befallen so many members of the minority community over the years is now part of life for most of us.

Concern by the larger society for the well-being of those incarcerated by the criminal justice is long overdue. The “good news” is that those with money, status and “connections” now know what it is like. They can bring that influence to the hard work of reforming the criminal justice system.
So what do we do about the safety and well-being of our friends, family members and neighbors incarcerated at the Middle River Regional Jail?

First, we must be aware that our community contributes its population and its funds to MRRJ.

Second, we must recall that we have six governing representatives on the oversight board of MRRJ. They are responsible for the welfare of friends and family members incarcerated there.

Finally, we must recognize that we are the second major force in a democratic society that can act to protect our fellow citizens from becoming abused by those in power. But we must become an informed and engaged citizenry.

On Monday, concerned members of the community will offer the public an opportunity to attend a public screening Tara Todd’s investigation and participate in a discussion.

The focus is on encouraging and supporting our representatives on the governing board of MRRJ to address and seek solutions to the problems at the jail.

Family members of those incarcerated at MRRJ are urged to attend. The hosts extend a special invitation to six representatives on the MRRJ governing board and jail officials. Finally, we must all become committed to assuring that the jail’s leadership and oversight board members create a working environment, programs and philosophy that respects both guards and those incarcerated there.

This moment of change and reform of the criminal justice system will pass if we do nothing. More lives will be lost and suffering ignored if we do not act.

Please accept the invitation to become part of the solution. Attend one of the two meetings to be held on Feb. 1 (noon to 1:30) and (6:30 to 8:00 p.m.) in the Fire and Rescue Room at the county building, 20 East Gay Street, Harrisonburg.

Here's a link to more information on the TV-29 series:

And another link to a petition signed by 19 courageous female inmates at MRRJ:

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Riding The Bipolar Roller Coaster

In her book “Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison examines the relationship between bipolar 1 disorder and creativity. She and many others believe that people with this condition have contributed greatly to the richness of our lives and our culture, people like Beethoven, Van Gogh, and Mark Twain, for example. 

Surely some Bible characters have had more than a touch of these symptoms, people like Jeremiah, Samson and some of the psalmists, for example. In Psalm 13 the writer goes from the God-forsaken despair of “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” to affirmations like “my heart rejoices... I am full of song... God is so good to me,” all in just six short verses. 

Unlike simple clinical depression, a bipolar individual is less likely to have their moods determined by losses or other external circumstances as by internal "brain storms" that are less easily treated with psychotherapy alone. The symptoms tend to have a genetically-driven life of their own, striking without warning and often persisting in spite of every effort to manage or modify their effects.

Formerly called manic-depressive disorder, this brain disease typically causes its victims to become very hyperactive, as in engaging in marathon binges of house cleaning, excessive shopping and/or other kinds of over-the-top and irrational behaviors, followed by a kind of emotional letdown that can be gut-wrenchingly painful.

Mood fluctuations are common to all of us, but these are extreme and can be debilitating. 

There may be a silver lining to the dark cloud of this disorder, however. The musical artist Leo Kottke once commented, "When you're manic, you create. When you’re depressed, you edit."

But the dark and despondent side of this condition calls for our special support and help. As with anyone experiencing a mental illness, being surrounded by a loving community is a major asset.

Of course that is true for any of us. Writer Gerald Shenk states the following, “Above all, I want them (our own adult children) to know the reality of a faith family network that vibrates with beauty and abundant goodness; a community whose thick fabric of care will be there for them through the best of times and the worst of times. Real families will always need real communities, both to survive and especially to thrive."

Good words for wherever we are on the mental health roller coaster.

Note: The difference between bipolar 1 and bipolar 2 is primarily in the degree of mania experienced. See

Monday, January 25, 2016

Please Support Next Monday's Public Screenings Of TV-29's Investigation Of Middle River Jail

Jennifer Smith died unattended in a segregated cell at the Middle River Jail in October, 2013
The following is an excerpt of an op ed piece submitted to the DNR by Laura Crites, used with her permission:

What do we do with this moment when Channel 29 has surfaced reason for concern about the safety and well being of our friends, family members and neighbors incarcerated at the Middle River Regional Jail?

First, we need to be aware that the Harrisonburg and Rockingham communities contribute their population and their funds to incarcerating our citizens at MRRJ.

Second, we need to know that we have six governing representatives on the oversight board of MRRJ. As our representatives they are responsible for the welfare of our friends and family members incarcerated there.

Finally, as community members, we need to recognize that we are the second major force in a democratic society that has the power to protect our fellow citizens from becoming abused by those in power.  We can exercise that power by becoming an informed and engaged citizenry.

On February 1, concerned members of the community are offering members of the public an opportunity to become informed and engaged in responding to the outcome of the investigation by Channel 29.  Citizens can attend a Channel 29 public screening of the investigation by reporter Tara Todd and participate in a community discussion.

A focus is on inviting the community to join in encouraging and supporting our  representatives on the governing board of MRRJ in addressing the problems and seeking solutions to issues exposed by the Channel 29 report.

The chair of the Board of Authority, Mike Hamp, of Waynesboro, told reporter Tara Todd that he would welcome information on problems at the jail and solutions that might be implemented.

This is an important moment in the life of our community.  Family members of those incarcerated at MRRJ are especially welcome.  Those hosting the event are also extending a special invitation to our 6 representatives on the MRRJ governing board as well as officials at MRRJ.  There is a commitment to working together with MRRJ leadership and oversight board members to create a working environment, programs and philosophy that respects both guards and those incarcerated there.

Please accept the invitation to become part of the solution.  Attend one of the  two meetings to be held Monday,  February 1 (noon to 1:30) and (6:30 – 8:00pm) at the County Building, 20 East Gay Street, Harrisonburg.  Look for the Fire and Rescue Room for each meeting.

Here's a link to more information on the TV-29 series:

Saturday, January 23, 2016

States Should Get Out Of The Gambling Business


estimated cash value: $30 MILLION
odds of winning are 1 in 258,890,850

In light of all of the negative social consequences associated with gambling, legal or otherwise, should we find it disturbing that Virginia, like other states, aggressively promotes this kind of kind of tax on the poor (and the mathematically challenged)? 

If citizens really understood that the odds of a big win are comparable to being struck by lightning in a snow storm, and if they realized that spending even modest amounts each week on lottery tickets resulted in a huge total loss over a lifetime, they would wisely choose not to participate and invest that money elsewhere.

According to a October 16, 2014 article in the Richmond Times, the Virginia Lottery Commission hires not just one but six different advertising agencies to promote this unseemly enterprise, In the case of alcohol, the Commonwealth doesn't prohibit drinking but regulates the sale of spirits. But at least it doesn't advertise its ABC outlets and actively promote alcohol addiction. So why should it spend millions promoting gambling, knowing that it, too, is a highly addictive behavior that can be equally destructive to individuals and families?

According to a Salon article "Ten Reasons State Lotteries Ruin The Economy", state-sponsored gambling siphons some $50 million from local economies, and the negative effect on those rare few who do win huge jackpots is most often disastrous.

So shouldn't governments just get out of the gambling business as a means of helping to pay for public education, and instead start educating people against engaging in this irrational behavior? Or at the very least, to stop its aggressive advertising?

Sadly, our tax-aversive legislators have become as addicted to the lottery as are the poor and the ignorant who are deluded into investing in it.

Feel free to comment and share.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Jesus In Disguise

Today I post one of my Pittsburgh-based singer-songwriter son's recent songs that I really like. It's based on the following statement by Mother Teresa:

“If we recognize [Jesus] under the appearance of bread, we will have no difficulty recognizing him in the disguise of the suffering poor.” 

there's a book some of us pray from,
with a message that we stray from,
standing right before our eyes:
   Jesus in disguise.

lofty songs, sung on the weekend,
don't last long once trouble sets in,
but that comes as no surprise
   to Jesus in disguise.

     Master, when did we see you,
     and not clothe you, and not feed you?
     if we had known, we would have tried,
     if only you had given us a sign,
    standing there, in plain sight..

if there's a hell, it's just a courtyard,
behind the wall around a safe heart,
we built so tall, it blocks the light,
     tell us, when did we see you,
     and not help, or even greet you?
     how were we supposed to trust?
     you did not look or sound like us,
    lock the door, who's left outside?.
in that book some try to follow
you'll find a truth that's hard to swallow,
he was right before our eyes,
   to Jesus in disguise,
standing there, in plain sight...

- Brad Yoder, all rights reserved

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Local Marriage/Divorce Ratio: 955/474 in 2015

Rockingham County Court House
Every January since 1996 the clerk of the local Circuit Court has kindly provided me with statistics of marriage licenses issued and divorces granted each year in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.

Since our population has increased significantly in the past two decades one would expect a steady rise in marriage numbers, but that isn't the case. Those numbers have been flat even though our population has increased by some 25% over the past two decades.

That hardly means fewer couples are pairing up, but simply that we have ever more people hooking up and breaking up in undocumented (common law) relationships. Unfortunately, we have no record of how many of cohabiting couples go through their own "divorces", with consequences often being just as distressing (if not more so) as those experienced by their legally married counterparts.

With fewer registered marriages we should also be able to expect fewer registered divorces. But that isn't true, either, as shown below:

Year           Marriages     Divorces

1996            873                 387
1997            950                 405
1998            964                 396
1999            932                 405
2000           947                 365
2001         1003                438     (most annual marriages)
2002           976                 421
2003           961                 399
2004           959                 437
2005           889                 381
2006           929                 389
2007           925                 434
2008           950                 405
2009           903                 347     (fewest annual divorces)
2010           879                 358     (fewest annual marriages since 1996)
2011            933                 433
2012            995                 445
2013            924                 484     (most annual divorces)
2014            972                 427
2015            955                 474

Given the fact that every divorce, documented or otherwise, profoundly impacts not only the couple involved, but the lives of parents, siblings, friends and especially any children involved, the number of our neighbors scarred by dysfunctional marriages and destructive divorces each year is incalculable.

I'm not prepared to make a cause and effect case here, but I can't help but note that as the percentage of adults who marry has steadily decreased relative to our population, the number of inmates in our jail has increased by over 500%! Of course that is much more likely a result of a criminal justice system gone awry than anything else, but neither mass incarceration nor more and more family breakups are signs of a truly healthy community.

Click here for additional posts on divorce.

Here's a graph showing trends to the year 2012:
Here's our population growth during that time:

Clarification: Marriage numbers include those who come here from another county or state to marry, whereas divorce numbers include only the breakups of residents of the City or County. However, it seems logical to assume that a roughly equal number of residents marry in other jurisdictions as marry here from other communities, so in my opinion the numbers above should be reasonably valid for comparison purposes.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

When Our Neighbors Are Caught In A Sting, Who Will Cast The First Stone?

Lady Justice, Rockingham Court House
A recent prostitution sting operation in our town has resulted in the arrest of ten of our local citizens. Nine remain, the tenth, at age 75, has committed suicide. The lives of the others, along with their families, will never be the same. 

From one perspective, a sting operation of this kind may seem perfectly justified (see extensive front page piece in today's Daily News-Record), especially in cases where it can nab predators who are taking advantage of disempowered individuals as prey, whether they be children, coworkers or street walkers. Choices have consequences, and predators must be brought to justice. 

But should such operations be used to indict and publicly name citizens who have had no prior record of the kind of wrongdoings for which they are now presumed guilty--and even before having the benefit of a trial? Or should they be used only to help apprehend people already suspected of being engaged in criminal activity?

Our criminal justice system is by its very nature "tough on crime", and in the case of offenders who persist in wrongdoing, it should be. We should all be outraged over those who shamelessly abuse their power at the expense of the powerless.

But Jesus also teaches us not to be quick to "cast the first stone”. For while few of us may ever have our names listed on the National Sex Offender Registry, none of us is without sin in this area. Whether in word, deed or in X-rated imagination, we have compiled our own record of wrongs.

So let us favor grace, but without resorting to "cheap grace". Let's support forgiveness, but not forgiveness as in "let's pretend this never happened". True forgiveness is in response to a demonstration of a 180-degree about face and a commitment to strict and ongoing accountability of the kind that ensures that everyone is safe, including the former perpetrator.

But without the possibility of redemption, there is no hope for any of us. For in thought, word, or deed, we are all sex offenders.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Affirming And Celebrating The Dream Of Shalom/Salem/Peace/Reconciliation

Community "People's Day" at Emmanuel Episcopal 1/18/16
"He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance... Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody."  
(Ephesians 2, the Message)

On Monday at 11:30 people from all over the community will be gathering in the parking lot of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church on the corner of Main Street and Martin Luther King, Jr., Way. There they will hear the well known "I Have A Dream" speech, walk together to Memorial Hall (former Harrisonburg High School building) and then return to enjoy a community meeting and potluck meal at the church.

The vision of both ancient and contemporary prophets has been of a world blessed with shalom, or salem, in which "nothing is marred and nothing is missing". Their constant theme has been that someday soon all barriers will be broken down, all enmities resolved and all hunger and want banished.

This is certainly far from a reality today, but it remains a dream that people of faith and goodwill affirm as being "too good not to be true", a dream they intend to boldly announce, live by and celebrate no matter what the cost or what the consequence.

Salem, or shalom, is not just the absence of war and violence, but the presence of spiritual and emotional wholeness, relational and family harmony, community and international health, and physical and even financial wellbeing. And it is not the kind of peace that can be fully experienced by an individual alone. Personal salvation is a necessary first step, but our full deliverance will come when all of humanity the world over is saved from the effects of evil and brokenness.

Here is a copy of the the Interfaith Association's recent statement that will be available for signatures Monday, along with an opportunity to help pay for a full-page ad in the Daily News-Record:


The organizations and individuals endorsing this statement are deeply saddened by the recent hatred expressed toward immigrants by citizens emboldened by presidential candidates and amplified by media outlets. We are deeply saddened by the violence that is taking place at home and abroad. We desperately need a productive public struggle over our different ethical and social choices. Productive politics can only happen within a commitment to live together in respect.

It is time to stop and recover our shared values. We are a nation of immigrants of different cultural, linguistic, and religious backgrounds, which makes our communities rich, diverse, and productive. Our community of Harrisonburg and Rockingham has a long lasting history of welcoming immigrants and celebrating the role that everyone contributes to our society, and we will not lose our souls to hate. Our call is not only to pray, but also to educate and engage in loving one another, as is the mandate of all of our faith communities.

We would like to let our community know that we intend to work together to stop religious intolerance, bigotry, religious discrimination, and fear of strangers from taking over the hearts of our institutions and members of our community.

We add our voice to the call of many others in the country who seek to promote common understanding, to love our neighbor, to dialogue with those who are different from us, to recognize and celebrate our differences, and to demand that our political parties return to civil discourse in society.

Post Office Box 964
Harrisonburg, Virginia 22803

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Virginia's Secretary Of Public Safety Could Derail One Of The Governor's Key Parole Commission Recommendations

Lady Justice
Here's a recent AP article based on the long awaited report of the Governor's Parole Review Commission:


Virginia abolished parole in 1995, but judges weren't required to tell jurors about that change until 2000.

Now, Gov. Terry McAuliffe's administration and advocates hope to give a second chance to inmates they say may have been unfairly punished.

Advocates and attorneys say that uninformed jurors gave some offenders inflated sentences between 1995 and 2000, thinking they'd serve just part of their term before being paroled.

Advocates now want law makers to consider allowing those inmates to be re-sentenced.

Brian Moran, secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, says the administration is committed to addressing the issue, but he questions how the state would re-sentence all those inmates.

He said the administration is crafting legislation that would instead make them eligible for parole.
Charles Zellers, Sr., a current parole eligible inmate, responds as follows:

"Brian Moran stating that the inmates should just be eligible for parole would not be accomplishing what advocates and the Governor had in mind because the parole board would illegally keep not granting the inmates parole (currently at a less than 3% release rate) until they have served 85 percent of their time anyway, just as they are doing with the parole eligible inmates in prisons now (all who were incarcerated before 1995).

"...This is just like the Virginia law Section 17.1-805, that retroactively enhances inmates sentences by 100, 300, and 500 percent. How can lawmakers increase an inmates sentence that was not agreed to in the plea bargin, by a jury or judge? How illegal is this? This is just like you getting a speeding ticket and go to court and the judge gives you 30 days in jail and while you are in jail lawmakers come up with a law that states if it was you first offense you serve 100%, second offense you serve 300% and third or more offense you serve 500%. If it was you third traffic offense, now your time to serve is 150 days. This is absurd and illegal. Please bring this to light. Refer to Code of Virginia 17.1-805.

"Also, Virginia has sex offenders laws that enhance an inmates sentence because of the crimes they were convicted for. How can these individuals add to sentences ordered by their plea bargain, jury of peers or judge?"

Here's the link to express your concern to the Governor's Office:
(Under "Message Information" select "Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security" and for the item "Response Required" mark "Yes")

Your message could be as follows (put this in your own words):

Brian Moran stating that inmates who were sentenced prior to 2000 (when judges were not required to instruct juries that parole had been abolished) should not have a re-sentencing hearing but simply be made eligible for parole would not be accomplishing what advocates and the Governor's Commission recommends. The parole board could illegally continue not granting the inmates parole (currently at a less than 3% release rate) until they have served 85 percent of their time anyway, just as they are doing now with parole eligible inmates (all who were incarcerated before 1995).

This is similar to the Virginia law Section 17.1-805, that retroactively enhances inmates sentences by 100, 300, and 500 percent. This cannot be either legal or just.

And here is a link to some other posts on parole reform.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Elections vs. Insurrections: Is The Second Amendment About Overthrowing Government?

As a former history and social studies teacher, recent public controversies about the Second Amendment have added to my interest in what the US founders meant when they wrote the following into their Bill of Rights:

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

The most controversial questions currently being debated seem to be, Who or what constitutes the "militia"? How are such militia formed, organized and led? What does "well-regulated" mean, and to whom do citizen militia answer? And are they ever meant to be for the purpose of citizens overthrowing their government by force (instead of by ballot)?

I'm not a constitutional scholar by any stretch, but here is what the founders explain in plain English in the Constitution itself (emphases mine):

Article I, Section 8, lists the following as being among the powers of Congress:  

"To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

"To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress..."

Article II, Section 2, further states:  

"The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States..."

Amendment 5 of the Bill of Rights contains the only other reference to the militia in the US Constitution, as follows:  

"No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger..."

That's it. There is not even a hint of the people bearing arms for the purpose of insurrections, but for quite the opposite, to suppress them, through state appointed, controlled and trained organizations like the National Guard.

Then there's this text from an even more authoritative source, first written to Christians living under the Roman tyrant Nero:

"Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear.

"Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you’ll get on just fine, the government working to your advantage. But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. That’s why you must live responsibly—not just to avoid punishment but also because it’s the right way to live.

"That’s also why you pay taxes—so that an orderly way of life can be maintained. Fulfill your obligations as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills, respect your leaders."

- Romans 13:-17 9 (the Message)

Friday, January 8, 2016

In Memory Of My Sister Mary Beth Shifflett, 1946-2015, And Husband Harven, 1937-2015

with son Harlen, around 1970
My younger adopted sister and her husband of 51 years perished in a tragic fire on the night of December 12. After extensive autopsies their deaths were deemed accidental and we were finally able to lay their bodies to rest at the Evergreen Church of the Brethren cemetery in Greene County this past Wednesday. 

What follows is the meditation I gave at their memorial service at 1 pm Sunday, January 4, at the Dyke Fire Hall south of Stanardsville, attended by some 150 people:

We’re here today to try to find some closure to what’s been a horrific nightmare of a holiday season. A month ago none of us could have dreamed that Harven and Mary Beth wouldn’t get to celebrate this Christmas here on this earth. Or that they wouldn’t be able to be together for Harven’s birthday, on the 18th, just a week before Christmas. I know how much Mary Beth loved special days like these, loved getting gifts for people, loved surprising and blessing others with just the right present. 

And I’m sure that when little Harven Isaac was born, just over 78 years ago now, he was welcomed as a special Christmas gift. And I remember well when Mary Beth came into our home as a foster child not long after Christmas at just four months of age, she was a gift we grew so attached to that my parents chose to adopt her and make her the youngest special member of our family, replacing me in that slot. 

I was just six when my new little sister came in all her cuteness, a Christmas present indeed. She was always the one, as an adult who was most interested in getting our family together for reunions and special occasions, but no one could have imagined we would ever have to get together for an occasion like this.

I remember one evening I was in the dairy barn at feeding time and I overheard my Dad talking to himself. He didn’t know I was observing and hearing him. And I remember him saying, with excitement in his voice, something about that day being the anniversary of little Mary Beth’s coming into our home. He loved her. And we all loved Harven as a special brother-in-law—friendly, hospitable, a hard-working breadwinner. We adopted them both.

Mary Beth as a teen
Whenever my sister had questions about her adoption, or when she told us about something her classmates at school said about it, she was always assured she was special. Unlike the rest of us, she was chosen. Then they in turn chose their one and only son Harlen, celebrating the fact that it is the chosen relationships with unrelated people, as in marriage, adoption, close friendships, or with our church families where the bonds are often even stronger than with our blood relationships.

In a kind of condensed Christmas story in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, there’s a text that says, “When the fullness of time was come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, to redeem us, so that we might receive full rights as God’s adopted children. And because we are children, God’s Spirit in us calls out, ‘Abba’ (‘Papa’), Father’,… and since we are children, we are also heirs, by adoption.” That’s the way God loves us, as beloved and chosen ones. Whoever believes, God receives, adopts, and welcomes into his family.

Our older brother Sanford, who with his wife Martha, lived many years around Shifflett’s Hollow near to Mary Beth and Harven, and now live in Costa Rica, wrote these words after hearing about their tragic deaths: 

"I have so many happy memories of sister Mary Beth. The day she arrived as a little baby we were all so excited. As she grew she became my little “favorite”, often sitting on my knees, singing with me... (We) mourn a great loss but are committing ourselves to the hands of a just and holy God ...who is perfect in love, perfect in mercy, and perfect in grace.” 

Those words were a comfort to me.

But we are still left with so many “Why’s?”, so many questions, but we are together today to share our memories and our faith in a God who walks with us through the darkest of valleys, knowing that no sparrow falls without his notice, or without his love and compassion.

This is our hope, even though we’ll grieve for a long, long time. And our hearts go out to friends and especially to family members, son Harlen, grandchildren Michael and Brittany. This has been an unbelievable beginning of a winter. But just as in the middle of our mourning the winter nights were at their longest, so we trust that with each new day of the new year, the nights of grief will become a little shorter, and the days of healing sunlight a little longer, so God will restore ever more of our light and life.

I close with some words of a hymn written by Colin Gibson after the death of an adult son of a friend of his:

Nothing is lost on the breath of God,
nothing is lost for ever;
God's breath is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world for ever.
No feather too light, no hair too fine,
no flower too brief in its glory;
no drop in the ocean, no dust in the air,
but is counted and told in God's story.

Nothing is lost to the eyes of God,
nothing is lost for ever;
God sees with love and that love will remain,
holding the world for ever.
No journey too far, no distance too great,
no valley of darkness too blinding;
no creature too humble, no child too small
for God to be seeking, and finding.

Nothing is lost to the heart of God,
nothing is lost for ever;
God's heart is love, and that love will remain,
holding the world for ever.
No impulse of love, no office of care,
no moment of life in its fulness;
no beginning too late, no ending too soon,
but is gathered and known in God's goodness.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Call For Moderation, Mutual Understanding And Acceptance In Harrisonburg And Rockingham County

Islamic Center, 1330 Country Club Road
The following statement is being proposed for endorsement and acceptance by members of the local Interfaith Association at its monthly luncheon meeting this Thursday noon. It is being hosted by members of the local mosque, and all are welcome:

"The organizations and individuals endorsing this statement are deeply saddened by the recent hatred expressed towards immigrants by citizens emboldened by presidential candidates and amplified by media outlets. We are deeply saddened by the violence that is taking place at home and abroad. We desperately need a productive public struggle over our different ethical and social choices. 

"It is time to stop and recover our values. We are a nation of immigrants of different cultural, linguistic, and religious backgrounds, which makes our communities rich, diverse, and productive.

"Our community of Harrisonburg and Rockingham has a long lasting history of welcoming immigrants  and celebrating the role that everyone contributes to our society, and will not lose our souls to hate. Our call is not only to pray, but also to educate and engage in loving one another, as is the mandate of all of our faith communities.

"We would like to let our community know that we intend to work together to stop religious intolerance, bigotry, religious discrimination, fear, and xenophobia from taking over the hearts of our institutions and members of our community.

"We add our voice to the call of many others in the country who seek to promote common understanding, to love our enemies, to dialogue with those who are different than us, to recognize and celebrate our differences, and to demand that hate-speech in our political parties stop."

You can RSVP to

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

On This Twelfth Day Of Christmas--Pray That The Church Will Overcome Its 'Ediface Complex'

Richard Jacobson website
"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands."
Paul, Acts 17:24 NIV

It's almost impossible to think of congregations these days without associating them with the buildings in which they meet. Architecturally these special structure are highly visible, easily recognizable, and say a lot about the faith and finances of the people who worship in them. And for the majority of the week, much of their heated and air conditioned spaces are unused.

But where did the idea of Christ's followers needing to own, or meet in, special kinds of real estate come from? There is no hint of Jesus ever giving his disciples instructions about forming building committees, raising funds for temple construction or electing trustees to look after church property.

On the contrary, Jesus and his apostles made it clear that the current temple of their day wasn't  relevant to the Kingdom of God movement, and it was that insistence, as much as any one thing, that got both Jesus and his follower Stephen killed. "The temple will be destroyed," Jesus declared, and in in the future "Wherever two or more are gathered in my name there I will be in their midst." And he told a Samaritan women, "The day will come when God will be worshiped neither in Jerusalem nor on this mountain (the one sacred to Samaritans)" (John 4). 

In his best selling book, "What Jesus Meant" Catholic author Garry Wills writes, "Jesus did not come to replace the Temple with other buildings, whether huts or cathedrals, but to instill a religion of the heart, with only himself as the place where we encounter the Father."

For the past 27 years Alma Jean and I have been members of a small house church congregation that meets weekly in member homes, much as first century believers did.

We don't claim that ours is the only right way to experience church, but we do believe that Jesus never meant for his followers to be highly dependent on burdensome real estate or a trained and professional clergy to continue Jesus' mission on earth.

And giving more of that money to the poor instead might be the kind of action even unbelievers could understand.

Monday, January 4, 2016

On This Eleventh Day Of Christmas--Pray For Exploited Workers The World Over

Bangladesh garment workers, paid $68 a month
"You have made a fine pile in these last days, haven’t you? But look, here is the pay of the reaper you hired and whom you cheated, and it is shouting against you! And the cries of the other laborers you swindled are heard by the Lord of Hosts himself. Yes, you have had a magnificent time on this earth, and have indulged yourselves to the full."
James 5:3-5 (J.B. Phillips translation)

We hear lots of talk about income inequality in the U.S. these days, and the reality of a widening gap between rich and poor that's only getting worse.

Of course, even the minimum wage working class in this country has benefits most of the world's poor would envy, most of whom will never enjoy amenities like air conditioning, wide screen TV's, cell phones, and many other benefits.

But the fact remains that a God of justice calls for some reasonable form of equity and equality everywhere, both at home and abroad. Surely the Creator never intended some of his children to a enjoy a surplus of wealth while others barely survive and millions around the world are malnourished to the point of starvation.

On the home front, a young adult friend of mine was told he no longer had a job at a Walmart in Richmond, not because he isn't an excellent employee, but because it is their policy to hire as many people as possible for only three months at a time so they do not have to provide health insurance. An older friend of mine, a department manager with a local Walmart for years, can barely make ends meet, and is seldom able to get any overtime pay because of their strict policies against it. Yet this corporation, said to be the most profitable in the world (and with the majority of its stock owned by members of the Walton family) threatened to not build another store in the D.C. area a couple of years ago because the city was about to raise its minimum wage.

It may be OK for us well-to-do folks to disagree over how to best provide a needed safety net for the poor, but it's not acceptable to keep people in poverty because we're afraid we might have to pay a dime more for a hamburger if fast food workers got a fair raise.

And let's not whine about government benefits for those below the poverty line while overlooking all of the ways the wealthy, with the help of a well paid cadre of lawyers and lobbyists, manage to get their own forms of government welfare through tax loopholes large enough to drive their RV's through, along with generous federal subsidies for corporately owned farms and by having poorly paid workers subsidized with food stamps and other benefits so they can afford to work at barely subsistence wages.

The solution to poverty is not more charity, but more opportunity for the able-bodied to earn a living wage, here and everywhere. The Bible says so.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

On This Tenth Day Of Christmas--Pray For The Welcome of Strangers And Aliens

"The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God."
Leviticus 19:34 (NIV)

The Bible is a story about immigrants. From the time of his birth, Jesus and his family experienced homelessness, with no room for them in the inn and with their being forced to become refugees in Egypt. Their ancestors Abraham and Sarah were likewise wandering Aramaens, strangers and immigrants on earth, and their Abrahamic descendants were by turn exiles in Egypt, Assyria and Babylon.

Except for native Americans, we are a nation of recent immigrants, and in the case of our local community, a wonderful mix of people representing dozens of different nationalities, languages and cultures.

My prayer on this Tenth Day of Christmas is that we become truly welcoming toward all of our neighbors, inviting them into our homes and into our friendships in the spirit of the text that says, "Do not neglect to show kindness to strangers; for in this way some, without knowing it, have had angels as their guests" (Hebrews 13:2 Weymouth).

I love this Celtic Blessing, referred to as the Irish Rune of Hospitality:

I saw a stranger yesterday;
I put food in the eating place,
drink in the drinking place,
music in the listening place,
and in the name of the Triune
he blessed myself and my house,
my cattle and my dear ones, and the lark said in her song
often, often, often,
goes the Christ in the stranger's guise,
often, often, often, 
goes the Christ in the stranger's guise. 

Here's a link to an earlier refection on "Christians Should Welcome Their Muslim Neighbors".

Saturday, January 2, 2016

On This Ninth Day Of Christmas--Pray That The Church Will Embrace Its Closeted Members

“Come to me all of you who are tired from the heavy burden you have been forced to carry. I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you.  Learn from me. I am gentle and humble in spirit. And you will be able to get some rest. Yes, the teaching that I ask you to accept is easy. The load I give you to carry is light.”  
- Jesus, Matthew 11:28-30 (ERV)

This piece isn’t meant to address the controversial question of whether the church should receive same-sex couples in committed relationships as members. That’s an important concern every congregation needs to face, to be sure, but this post is about the church being truly pastoral in the way it cares for all of its already committed members, including that silent minority of gays and lesbians among them who wait to be welcomed as a vital part of the church’s conversation on this and all other issues.

On this ninth day of Christmas I am praying that our congregations become totally safe places for people to come out of any imposed isolation and fully walk in the light alongside the rest of us. It’s about our freely loving and fully embracing everyone, celebrating God’s image in each.

We all know cases of sons and daughters of our fellow members, including those of our church leaders, who have either suffered in silence year after year under our "Don't-ask-Don't-tell-and-Don't-talk-about-it" policy or who have quietly left the church and in some cases entered into some kind of partnered relationships. By now most of us realize that differently oriented persons make up around 3-5% of our number, that they are not going away, and that there is growing evidence that they are who they are through no choice of their own. Yet they seldom feel free to tell us what it's like to be in their shoes.

The results have often been tragic, with good people struggling with feelings of intense isolation, self-doubt, spiritual turmoil, social estrangement and even suicide. Our heterosexually dominant church communities are often experienced by these members as unfriendly, inhospitable and rejecting. Thus we have become guilty of inflicting deep hurt to those who are born different from us. I know many of them, some who have poured out their hearts to me in the privacy of my office. They are our sisters and brothers.

So please join me in praying that as a church we will finally pledge, loudly and clearly, that nothing anyone discloses to us about their private life or their secret longings will make it worse for them for having done so. That our love and acceptance, our willingness to walk and talk with each other and to lovingly encourage each other toward faithfulness, will not be affected in any negative way.

We are, after all, all flawed and needy people, each of us in our own way. We need each other's help--and God's help--to work things out, no matter what it takes or how long it takes. We are dedicated to finding Jesus' way, and how we can together take on his well-fitting yoke.

Click here for something I posted on this subject over four years ago, and here for another more recent blog on how this issue is affecting the church

Friday, January 1, 2016

On This Eighth Day Of Christmas--Pray For A Forever End To The Insanity Of War

"God will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore."
Isaiah 2:4 (NIV)

It's hard to imagine a world without weapons. But imagine it we must, if we are to survive on an earth with just enough resources for all, but not enough to waste on ever more efficient instruments of death.

Throughout history people and nations have tried to maintain peace through every means except to follow the example and teachings of the Prince of Peace. We have dismissed as naive Jesus's commands to "love our enemies, pray for them, and do good to them", especially when we realize that kind of response may result in suffering and even crucifixion. We have refused to believe that the only way to peace is through the costly practice of it.

People of faith envision a God-ruled world that will one day result in wolf and lamb lying down together, and have begun to eagerly demonstrate that new way now, just as Jesus and other prophets of peace have done. 

I read an example of this in the December, 2013, issue of Sojourner's magazine, in which a group of Mennonite blacksmiths in Colorado have formed a group called RAWtools, in which they literally do just that. Philadelphia preacher and peace activist Shaine Claiborne narrates a  short Swords to Plows clip about them, one you should be sure to take time to see.
Swords to Plows

So join me in praying on this Eighth Day of Christmas, and on the first day of a new year, for a forever end to the insanity, horror and brutality of armed conflict. From God's perspective, war is over, a thing of the past. God's forever future is all about shalom, harmony and enduring peace.

You and I are invited to become living demonstrations of that reality. It begins wherever, whenever and in whomever God is sovereign.

This is the time. The world can wait no longer.

For more posts on this topic check this link.